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Comparing alternative Android browsers

Chrome alternatives with ad blocking, data saving and privacy features

While Google Chrome is the standard browser on modern Android devices, there are several noteworthy alternative browsers I’d like to review in this post.

I’m focussing on aspects I find important. Therefore, the descriptions are utterly incomplete and completely subjective. I won’t mention features that almost every browser has, like sharing, bookmarks, history and a combined URL and search bar. I will miss features others regard as crucial, like cross-device syncing, offline saving and download management.

These are the aspects I have examined:

  • General usability: user experience when browsing the web.
  • Nifty usability features: configuration, small but clever features that make life easier, settings for pro users.
  • Blocking of ads and trackers
  • Data saving
  • Privacy features
  • Web technology support

I have tested these browsers:

  1. Chrome (for reference) ↓
  2. Opera Mini ↓
  3. Opera ↓
  4. Firefox ↓
  5. Firefox Focus ↓
  6. Orfox and Orbot ↓
  7. UC Browser ↓
  8. Brave ↓

The test devices:

I’ve only tested browsers that are available for both devices, that’s why I’m not reviewing vendor-specific browsers like Samsung Internet here.

Chrome (for reference)

Tested version: 59.0.3701.125
html5test score: 518 / 555

Chrome is the browser that is pre-installed on all newer Android devices. There’s no full review here – I assume you roughly know what it does, how it looks and feels. Still I’d like to mention a few things about Chrome for reference.

I consider Chrome to be the best Android browser in terms of browsing experience, performance and technical innovation. Chrome can be seen as a “simple” browser that is not particularly rich in features. But compared to other browsers, you’ll realize how sophisticated Chrome’s simplicity in fact is. Chrome’s product design has reached a point where “there is nothing left to take away”. In several regards, Chrome is the standard I measure other browsers against.

Chrome has a built-in data saving feature, but no ad or tracking blocker yet. Google is one of the biggest players in online advertising. Although Google announced that Chrome will block some intrusive ads in the future, it’s obvious that Chrome is not going to block any Google ads or trackers.

That’s the main reason I’m looking for alternatives. And while I appreciate Chrome’s simplicity, I also like some additional features that Chrome lacks.

Opera Mini

Tested version: 28.0.2254.119114
Download size: 5.21 MB

Opera Mini has a long history as a special browser for low-end feature phones. On modern Android systems, there is little left of this legacy.

General usability

The onboarding experience puts me off a bit: There’s a home screen named Speed Dial with bookmarks but also random news with ads in between. The first thing I do is to disable the news and to clean up the pre-defined bookmarks.

Per default, the main user interface has a top and a bottom bar. The top bar contains the current URL and a sharing/saving/bookmarking menu. The bottom bar contains back and forward, home, tabs and the main Opera menu.

There are three possible fullscreen modes: Disabled, Enabled, Enabled with status bar. I’m using “Enabled” which means the top bar is visible all the time, the bottom bar disappears when you scroll down and reappears when you scroll up.

There is an alternative layout for tablets with a large tab bar at the top and a combined bar below.

All necessary features are easy to reach. The horizontal tab overview is clear and easy to navigate.

Nifty usability features

  • Night mode for switching to a low brightness, tinted red display mode. This is useful in case your Android doesn’t support such a feature on the operating system level (my P9 does, my Galaxy S5 mini doesn’t).
  • Copying and pasting URLs on the location bar is easier than in other browsers. No long tap to access the Android clipboard menu is necessary. The URL is automatically selected when tapping on the URL, and there’s a “Copy link” button beneath. If there’s a URL in the clipboard, there’s a button to navigate to it quickly.
  • Changing the theme color of the bars and menus quickly.

Ad and tracker blocking

Opera Mini comes with a built-in ad blocker. It works well, I almost never see typical ads. The downside is that the ad blocking feature is bound to the data saving (see below), you can’t enable the former without the latter.

Apparently there is no blocking of trackers.

Data saving

Probably the most important feature is the built-in data saver. According to the in-app statistics, the compression saved me 50% of the transmitted data so far, so I guess it’s pretty effective.

The data saving has several modes: Automatic, Extreme, High, Off.

  • High” means Opera Mini uses a proxy-based solution to compress web pages (text-based formats like HTML, CSS and JavaScript), images and videos.
  • Originally conceived for feature phones, the “extreme” mode is radically different: Web pages aren’t downloaded normally and rendered on the device. They are pre-rendered on the server using the good-old Opera Presto engine. Opera Mini then downloads a compressed binary format, not a bunch of individual resources. This mode works surprisingly well and indeed allows “extreme” data savings. But it does not work for highly interactive sites like JavaScript applications.
  • I recommend the default setting “automatic”, which uses the proxy-based solution in most cases. I guess there’s a small whitelist for sites that are rendered on the server with Presto.

There is an additional image quality setting: Low, Medium, High. When not browsing photo sites, it’s safe to set it to “Low” which means high compression.

If you’re on a non-metered, fast internet connection, browsing with data saving enabled might actually be slower. Also be aware that any proxy-based data saving feature sends your whole browsing history to the proxy.

Privacy features

  • Private tabs. Unfortunately, these tabs are not blank in the Android “Recent Apps”. Content of private tabs might be seen in the application overview.
  • Disable cookies. Most Chrome-based browsers allow to disable cookies, but this feature is not useful in my opinion. Disabling cookies altogether renders most login-based sites unusable.
  • Disable usage statistics
  • Clear browsing data manually

Web technology support

html5test score: 501 / 555
Chrome 59 for reference: 518 / 555

Opera Mini uses the system-wide Chrome browser component, which is the latest Chrome 59 both on my Huawei P9 and Galaxy S5 mini. This is why the app is just 5 MB – Mini does not ship with its own browser engine.

Although Opera Mini uses the same engine as Chrome, some JavaScript APIs are not available. Mostly APIs related to “Progressive Web Apps”: No push notifications, web notifications, web payments. This explains the different html5test score.

Conclusion

Opera Mini is a decent mobile browser I’m using frequently. It’s up-to-date in terms of web technology, since it’s based on the latest Chrome. The user interface is clear. The bottom bar is not that useful, though. Fortunately Opera Mini allows to configure the app layout.

Opera

Tested version: 42.7.2246.114996
Download size: 31.83 MB

The “full” Opera is basically the same as Opera Mini but comes with some changes:

  • There is more importance attached to the news reading on the home screen.
  • A slightly different user interface. Top and bottom bar are fixed. The icons are different. The menus are organized differently, having almost the same menu entries.

Opera ships with its own browser engine, which is why you need to download more than 30 MB. The Chrome engine inside of Opera 42 is based on Chrome/Chromium version 55, which is half a year older than the system Chrome engine, version 59.

Conclusion

Opera seems to be a more cluttered version of Opera Mini with an outdated engine. The user interface changes mostly make things more complex. Even worse, Opera hides some features I like about Opera Mini.

Given that Opera Mini exists, I don’t see why the full Opera is needed. I see no benefit for my devices.

Firefox

Tested version: 54.0.1
Download size: 33.24 MB

General usability

In many ways, Firefox feels like the desktop dinosaur brought to mobile devices. If you’re familiar with Firefox Desktop, you’ll get along in Firefox for Android since the interface wording is the same.

When starting the app, you see a welcome screen with a short tutorial. Then you start with a home screen with three tabs: Top sites, bookmarks and history. This screen is also shown when opening a new tab. A clever solution in my opinion.

The main user interface consists of a top bar with the URL field, tab manager and main menu. Full screen browsing is enabled per default, so the top bar hides when you scroll down on a page.

The main menu has four icon buttons (back, forward, bookmark, reload), 11 textual menu entries with three sub-menus. Wow!

I like that Firefox has only one bar at the top. The drawback is that you need to open the main menu frequently. This menu in top-right corner is not easy to reach with your thumb when using your mobile phone with one hand.

All essential browser functions are easy to reach, but the main menu is too large and confusing.

The tab overview is clear and easy to interact with. Per default, the tabs are listed in a two-column grid. It can be configured to be a single-column list.

The numerous settings are grouped and explained well. There are many useful features, probably too many to grasp them even for tech-savvy folks. Most of the time there’s no need to change these internal settings anyway.

Nifty usability features

  • There’s a reader mode that applies a style sheet with large, white-on-black text to long articles to improve the readability.
  • Save pages as PDF files

Ad and tracker blocking

Firefox does not have a built-in ad blocker. It has a built-in tracking protection that can only be enabled in private tabs. Why so?

In contrast to most Chrome-based mobile browsers, Firefox Mobile supports the same extensions that can be installed on Firefox Desktop. So we can use well-known extensions like uBlock Origin, Adblock Plus or Ghostery on Android as well.

Unfortunately, the UI of these blockers might not work well on mobile devices. But if you’re familiar with a certain extension on Firefox desktop, you’ll be able to configure it on mobile as well.

Data saving

Firefox does not have a generic data saving feature, but two fine-grained features:

  • Show images: Always / Only over Wi-Fi / Blocked
  • Show web fonts: On / Off

Disabling web fonts is a good performance booster that has little impact on a site’s usability.

Images are indeed the biggest cause of mobile internet traffic, so there’s big data saving potential. But disabling images completely is not that useful in my opinion. I prefer proxy-based solutions that re-compress images heavily.

Privacy features

  • Firefox kindly asks if you want to enable search suggestions when you type into the URL field. In other browsers, this is enabled per default and sends all input to the default search engine, which is Google. Consent is cool!
  • The “Do not track” HTTP header can be enabled, just like in Chrome.
  • There’s a built-in tracking protection, but as I said, it only works in private browsing mode.
  • “Data choices” allows you to choose which usage data is sent to Mozilla. Chrome has a similar feature but in my opinion, Mozilla makes it more transparent what data they are collecting and why.
  • Cookies: Enabled / Enabled, exclude third party cookies / Disabled. Most Chrome-based browsers allow to disable cookies, but that’s not particularly useful. Gladly Firefox allows to disable third party cookies, which is a good tradeoff between privacy and, well, working websites.
  • Clear private data manually
  • Clear private data automatically on exit

Web technology support

html5test score: 477 / 555
Chrome 59 for reference: 518 / 555

Firefox is the only Android browser in this list that not based on Chrome/Chromium or an older WebKit. Mozilla Firefox comes with its own engine, Gecko. Mozilla implements web platform features with a different pace and different focus than Google. Even though Firefox lags behind in the html5test score, Gecko is a modern browser engine that supports all important web technologies. Also, Firefox is updated frequently with a six-to-eight week release cycle.

Conclusion

Together with the uBlock Origin extension, Firefox is a usable mobile browser. Unfortunately, there is no generic data saving feature and the built-in data saving is rudimentary.

In my opinion, Firefox for Android has a bloated, substandard UI that carries on the legacy of its desktop version. The Firefox product designers did not accomplish to identify and focus on the core mobile browsing experience. The single-bar main interface is refreshing, but the cluttered main menu is disappointing. There are numerous settings but most of them are irrelevant.

Firefox is noticeably slow on my Galaxy S5 mini, way slower than Chrome-based browsers. This is a known drawback of the Gecko engine, it performs worse than Blink and WebKit especially on mobile devices with less computing power.

Firefox Focus (Firefox Klar in Germany)

Tested version: 1.0
Download size: 2.08 MB

Firefox Focus is a new, simplistic concept browser for private browsing. It’s not based on Firefox mentioned above.

General usability

When starting the app, a quick tutorial explains the main features.

Firefox Focus doesn’t have all the normal browser features you’d probably expect. It doesn’t have multiple tabs. There is just a single tab, a colorful top bar and large floating button to close the page and clear all data. The motto is “Browse. Erase. Repeat.”

The top bar has a URL field and a short menu with forward, reload, tracker blocking on/off, share and open with other browsers. So if you find a page useful and want to bookmark it, you can still do that with a full-featured browser.

The user interface is clear and simple, there is little to explain or complain about.

Nifty usability features

Firefox Focus is reduced to the minimum, that’s the whole point. You can tell that the designers looked for the bare necessities by the fact that there is no back button. Almost all Android devices already have a large, central back button. No need to put another back button on the screen.

Ad and tracker blocking

Firefox Focus has a built-in ad and tracker blocking. The settings allow to configure the blocking of ads and different types of trackers.

Data saving

No data saving feature.

Privacy features

The whole purpose of the browser is privacy, so…

  • No browsing history is recorded across sessions
  • Erasing the browser history is simple, just press the big trash button or the button in the Android dropdown menu
  • Blocks different types of trackers
  • Stealth mode that disables screenshots and the preview in Android’s “Recent Apps”. I had to disable this mode to take screenshots!

Web technology support

html5test score: 499 / 555
Chrome 59 for reference: 518 / 555

Firefox Focus is a small two-megabyte shell around the system-wide, always up-to-date Chrome browser component (Chromium WebView). So it’s not a Gecko-based browser like the normal Firefox.

Conclusion

Firefox Focus is a refreshing concept browser that reflects the core values of Mozilla. This is what I expect from Mozilla: To be the user’s advocate in a web that intrudes our privacy.

Firefox Focus cannot and does not want to be your full-featured browser, but it offers a clear benefit. While the full-blown Firefox lacks direction in my opinion, the product design of Focus is outstanding and simply on point. I wish Mozilla learns from this successful experiment and improves the main Firefox browser.

Orfox and Orbot

Tested version: 1.2.1
Download size: 30.48 MB

Orfox is a special version of Firefox that connects to the Tor onion routing network to allow anonymous browsing. It requires a second app named Orbot, which is the actual Tor network client.

Apart from the Tor routing, Orfox resembles the normal Firefox. There are slightly different default settings. The NoScript extension is installed per default since JavaScript is a great tool to fingerprint your device and to uncover your anonymity. You’re free to install more extensions like uBlock Origin.

The tested Orfox version is based on Firefox 45.5.1 Extended Support Release from December 2016. The major version 45 was released in March 2016. So it’s not the latest Firefox, but still a pretty recent one.

UC Browser

Tested version: 11.3.8.976
Download size: 20.15 MB

UC Browser is hugely popular browser in emerging markets like China, India and Indonesia. It’s packed with features.

General usability

When starting the app for the first time, it asks for the permission to “make and manage phone calls”. According to the welcome screen, this allows the app to use the operator name in order to improve the data saving. I’m not sure about the technical details here, so when in doubt, I do not grant permissions. UC Browser is still able to operate.

In a four-screen tutorial, UC browser quickly introduces its major features. On the fourth screen, you are able to opt out of the “UX Improvement Program”. There’s a quick link to their privacy policy with an explanation of the collected data. Transparency and asking for consent builds trust, nevertheless I’m opting out.

Next, UC Browser asks for the permission to “access photos, media and files on the device”. UC Browser says it needs the permission “to start saving data”. Again I’m not fully sure what that means. It’s not explained why this permission is necessary. For reference, no other data-saving browser in this comparison asked for any permissions on the first run.

After having started UC Browser, it installs a Facebook bar in your system-wide Android quick settings dropdown menu. I’m not using Facebook, so the first thing I do is to disable this feature.

When navigating to the first web page, UC Browser shows a dialog that asks me to install a “Quick Search Shortcut”. That’s a Google search bar for the settings dropdown menu. No, thanks.

The main interface has a top bar with a combined title and URL field, a search button and reload button. There is a bottom bar with back/forward, menu, tab overview and home page buttons. Per default, the top bar is hidden when scrolling down while the bottom bar is fixed. There’s also a fullscreen mode that makes both bars disappear on scrolling.

Tapping on the search button shows a screen where you can choose what type of content to search for – e.g. web, videos, apps, images, news – and which search engine to use – e.g. Google, Bing, DuckDuckGo, YouTube and some UC-Browser-related sites.

The start page of a new tab features pre-defined bookmarks, random news headlines, “Hot Videos” and my most visited pages. When swiping right, there’s a Speed Dial bookmarks list the user manages themselves. By tapping the “Manage Cards” button, one can disable most of the “hot news” rubbish on the start page.

The main menu can be opened from the bottom bar. I think it’s one of the strengths of UC Browser. All important features are easily accessible and clear to understand thanks to proper use of icons.

When swiping right, there are settings for changing the display of the current page: change font size, color theme, fit to screen vs. zoom. These are vital tools to make websites more readable.

After some browsing, a dialog pops up and asks me to rate the app on the Play Store or to leave feedback on the UC Help Center.

The tab overview is done well. You can switch between horizontal card view (like in Android and Opera Mini) and vertical list view (like in Firefox but without preview images).

When exiting UC Browser using the Android back button, I’m asked if I want to clear browsing history or add UC to home screen. I choose “do not ask again”.

But wait, there’s even more. When connecting the device to charger, a dialog pops up and asks me to enable “UC Smart Charging” “including hot recommendations and ads”. Creepy!

Nifty usability features

  • Night mode for switching to a low brightness, low contrast display mode
  • Quick font size adjustment as well as base font size setting
  • Color themes for websites
  • Numerous browser themes to choose from, essentially wallpaper images for the translucent UI

Ad and tracker blocking

UC Browser comes with a built-in ad blocker that works well in my tests. In contrast to Opera Mini, it is not bound to the data saving feature.

Apparently there is no blocking of trackers, only ads.

Data saving

UC Browser has a built-in data saving feature that is enabled when you’re on a mobile internet connection. It’s a proxy-based solution just like Opera Mini’s, compressing web pages, images and videos. There are detailed statistics about how much data were saved. Two settings allow to adjust to handling of images:

  • Image quality: Text-only (i.e. no images) / Low / Medium / High
  • Text only mode: On / Off, i.e. images will only be loaded when on Wi-Fi

The feature works well. According to the statistics, the saved data on the tested sites is enormous.

Privacy features

  • Incognito mode. Note that this is something different than private tabs. This switches the whole browser into a mode where the browsing history is not recorded. When leaving the mode, UC Browser asks to close all opened tabs. This is a refreshing take on private browsing, but I prefer the clarity of normal tabs vs. private tabs. Unfortunately, the preview window in the Android “Recent Apps” is not blank when incognito mode is switched on.
  • Clear browsing history manually
  • Clear browsing history on exit

Web technology support

html5test score: 346 / 555
Chrome 59 for reference: 518 / 555

UC Browser ships with a custom browser engine called “U3”. According to the user agent, the engine is based on WebKit version 534.30. This version was tagged six years ago and roughly corresponds to Safari 5.1.

The fact that UC Browser uses an antediluvian browser engine explains the lousy html5test score. I’m wondering wheather the developers merged in any WebKit security and stability patches since 2011. There are numerous dreaded Android browsers based on outdated WebKits, and apparently UC Browser is yet another offender that hinders technical progress.

Conclusion

UC Browser has outstanding user interface ideas and usability features. But all in all, this browser is bloated with features unrelated to web browsing. I only mentioned a fraction in this review. Most of the features I do not use. Most of the features I simply do not understand. They’re not explained well. It seems UC Browser wants to manage your digital life by taking over your mobile device – instead of just being a user-friendly browser.

I understand that the company behind UC Browser wants to promote certain content to make money with the app. Still, all those pop-ups and notifications, the pre-defined bookmarks and the system-wide integration are obtrusive and annoying. This destroys the trust the product tries to earn with user-centric design in the core experience.

If my observation is correct that UC Browser is based on a six year old browser engine that hasn’t been updated since, that’s a strong reason against the software.

Brave

Tested version: 1.0.24
Download size: 37.30 MB

Brave is a fairly new browser by a company co-founded by Brendan Eich, the inventor of the JavaScript programming language and former CTO of Mozilla. Brave aims to combine ad blocking with a payment system for content authors to create sustainable business models on the web.

General usability

The user interface is almost identical to a vanilla Chrome. The main addition is the Brave button in the top bar between the tab overview button and the well-known Chrome menu.

Tapping the Brave button opens a menu which allows to toggle ad, tracker, cookie and script blocking as well as HTTPS everywhere and fingerprint protection.

Web-savvy people might understand all these detailed per-site settings, others might at least understand ad and tracker blocking.

Under Settings > Privacy, the features added by Brave can be configured for all sites along with Chrome’s own privacy settings.

Nifty usability features

No additional features compared to Chrome.

Ad and tracker blocking

The main feature of Brave is a powerful ad blocker and tracking protection. Both engines are open-source and work well in my tests.

Data saving

In contrast to Chrome, Brave does not have a data saving feature. Channeling all your web traffic through proxies would thwart the goal of protecting your privacy. Also I suppose Google’s proxy servers are not available for free for Chromium-based browsers. This is an exclusive Chrome feature.

Privacy features

  • Built-in tracking protection
  • Fingerprinting protection. This makes it harder for websites to collect data about your device to create a unique hardware/software fingerprint.
  • Easy per-site script blocking. Most tracking is performed using JavaScript, and it has a negative impact on performance.
  • Cookies: Per default, third party cookies are blocked. This can be configured per site or globally for all sites.
  • Clear private data manually

Web technology support

html5test score: 513 / 555
Chrome 59 for reference: 518 / 555

Brave for Android is an open-source browser shell around the latest Chrome/Chromium 59. So the html5test score is almost the same as Chrome 59.

Brave ships with a full browser engine, hence the download size of 37 MB. I guess there are technical reasons why Brave does not just use the system-wide Chrome component. I suppose the tracking and fingerprint protection hooks into the engine at a low level that makes a custom Chromium build is necessary.

Conclusion

Brave is a promising new browser that satisfies the need of mobile web users for performance and privacy. At the same time, it doesn’t try to reinvent the browser, it just adds a limited set of features to the tried-and-tested Chrome/Chromium foundation. This design decision values the work and experience that went into Chrome.

Currently Brave offers most features I expect from a mobile web browser. I hope Brave improves its integration into the Chrome UI and keeps track with the technical foundation.

Acknowledgment

Thanks to everyone who answered or shared my Twitter survey! Your input motivated me to have a closer look at the different browsers.

I’d love to hear your feedback! Send an email to molily@mailbox.org or message me on Twitter: @molily.